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Detecting malaria – it’s all in the breath

Diagnosing malaria may soon be as simple as undergoing a roadside breath test in what could be a major advance in the detection and treatment of a disease that kills more than 500,000 people every year and infects around 200 million.

A collaboration of Australian researchers from the CSIRO, the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Australian National University has discovered that the concentration of sulphur-containing chemicals in human breath varies with the onset and progression of malaria, opening up the possibility for a novel, cheap and effective method to diagnose the disease at an early stage.

The researchers found that chemicals normally virtually undetectable in human breath increased markedly among volunteers infected with a controlled dose of the disease.

The discovery arose out of two independent studies being conducted to test experimental malaria treatments. In the course of the investigation, the researchers identified four sulphur-containing compounds whose concentration varied over the course of the infection.

“The sulphur-containing chemicals had not previously been associated with any disease, and their concentrations changed in a consistent pattern over the course of the malaria infection,” Professor James McCarthy, Senior Scientist in Clinical Tropical Medicine at QIMR Berghofer, said. “Their levels were correlated with the severity of the infection and effectively disappeared after they were cured.”

CSIRO Research Group Leader Dr Stephen Trowell said what was particularly significant was that the concentration of these chemicals increased from the nascent stages of the infection, boosting the chances of very early diagnosis and treatment.

Currently, most malaria diagnoses involve drawing a blood sample and using a microscope to look for parasites – a cumbersome and invasive process that has changed little in more than 130 years.

But Dr Trowell said the discovery raised the possibility of developing a simple breath test to screen for the disease, which could make task of controlling and eventually eliminating malaria much more feasible.

The researchers have begun collaboration with colleagues in regions where malaria is endemic to see whether the technique works in the field, and work is also being undertaken to develop more cost-effective sensing equipment.

The research has been published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Adrian Rollins